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Cream from Cow's Milk

Cream from Cow’s Milk

Today’s bland but pretty post features a bland but pretty color—and one which traces its roots back to the beginnings of agriculture!   Cream is the color of, well… cream.  If one milks a grazing animal (cow, goat, sheep, camel, mare, etc…) the milkfat will rise up to the top of the bucket.  Cream from grazing animals takes on a lovely pale yellow color from carotenoid pigments which occur in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of meadow plants.  This effect is greatly attenuated in processed cream from factory-farmed milk, so, if you want the original effect as appreciated by Roman and Medieval colorists, you will have to wonder up to a green mountain pasture and milk the goats yourself as though you were Heidi (eds note: please, please do not wander around unfamiliar mountain pastures and grab at the teats of strange ruminants!).

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

Cream was a premium source of energy, nutrients, and sustenance throughout recorded history (and a costly ingredient in the foodstuffs of the rich and privileged for just as long).  Cream shows up in Homer, the Bible, Roman pastoral poems, Scandinavian sagas, and Renaissance metaphysical poetry.   Throughout all of these times, the word has been used as a description of the pale yellow/off-white color.


As a renter, I have a bitterness towards the color cream: rental flats are invariably painted cream because: 1) cream does not show dirt and age as much as white; 2) the bright color still makes rooms seem spacious and bright; and 3) you can always paint over it.  Yet as an artist, I love cream color!  It is perfect for vestal virgins, angel wings, and abandoned human skulls lying around dragon warrens!  Cream is the highlight color of flesh seen in incandescent light and it forms the shadow side of clouds on perfectly bright sunny days.  Even the oil-primed Belgian linen that painters like to paint on is cream-colored.

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

Because the color strikes such a note with humankind for aesthetic and historical reasons, a great many birds and animals have it in their Latin or common names.  Thanks to the ancient ties between cream and luxuriant desserts, it also has a strange double life as an aristocratic color (which belies its use on the walls of rental garrets).   As I keep writing, I realize how complex my feelings are about this beautiful pastel color….

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

Don’t expect any resolution–you will have to figure out how you feel about the multitudinous meanings and associations of cream on your own!




Apple tree (Gustav Klimt, ca. 1912, oil on canvas)

Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), preeminent master of the Vienna Secession movement, is famous for his unabashedly erotic paintings which swirl with sensual languor and with dark Freudian symbolism–however there was a completely different side to the stormy and controversial fin-de-siecle painter.  Beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, Klimt took an annual holiday to lovely Lake Attersee in the picturesque Austrian mountains.  While there, Klimt painted lovely landscape paintings quite different in theme from his usual studio works.  As opposed to the seductresses, maidens, and goddesses which characterize his most famous and controversial artwork, the Attersee paintings emphasize the beauty and serenity of deciduous trees.  Using pointillistic brushstokes and bright delicate colors Klimt crafted nature paintings which were both realistic and yet brimmed with abstruse energy.  Although the trees and country landscape exist in coherent spatial perspective, the impressionist brushstrokes and emphasis on color effectively flatten the tree dimensional vistas into a single plain of writhing color.  Perhaps more than his figure paintings, the Attersee works prefigure the turn to abstract expressionism which was to mark the later 20th century.

Pear Tree (Gustav Klimt, 1903, oil on canvas)

Because it is spring, (and thanks to Ferrebeekeeper’s enduring obsession with trees), I have picked out three lovely paintings of trees by Klimt to showcase in this post.  Unfortunately it is difficult to blow the images up to a proper viewing size, but even in the small digital images, one can see that the surprisingly realistic landscapes dissolve into myriad constellations of glowing dots and writhing dashes.  Each leaf and branch and blossom has its own plastic beauty which together form a strange lovely impression quite alien and apart from the pretty countryside.  The spermazoid drip shapes and rough dollops of color make it seems almost as though the atomic structure of the trees is being demonstrated.

Fruit Trees (Gustav Klimt, 1901, Oil on canvas)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023